Arts » Architecture

H.H. Richardson's duly famous Allegheny Courthouse gets its own scholarly symposium.

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In 1904, when Henry Hobson Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse was barely 16 years old, architect Frederick Osterling unveiled a plan to expand it. To add badly needed square footage, he proposed to lop off the building's roof, insert two new floors and then rebuild the top as before, only higher up, a strategy that had yielded practical but aesthetically odd results in Manhattan's New York Tribune Building. Three years later, Henry Hornbostel rather brazenly suggested building a gigantic, 650-foot tower rising incongruously from the center of the building's courtyard.

Both times, the outcry was loud and nearly unanimous: No one should alter Richardson's courthouse and jail, which comprise a masterpiece of architecture. The latter sentiment, as viewed with renewed scholarly acuity, is the basis of a symposium being held Fri., April 18, at the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Building (www.haa.pitt.edu/news/).

Indeed, Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail complex, as well as his architecture generally, were so popular that he single-handedly fomented his own style, the Richardsonian Romanesque, which led to textured and weighty arcuated buildings around the continent, not just the county. Civic buildings following the Pittsburgh model sprung up in locations as disparate as Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Dallas and Toronto.

Because we still love the buildings and appreciate their legacy, the reaction against altering our own courthouse a century ago is not surprising. But maybe it should be. By the early 20th century, the lighter, brighter, more historically precise classical architecture of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition was fully in vogue in one of American architectural history's most rapid and definitive changes in building fashion. Richardson had died prematurely in 1886, so he was not around either to compete with the new style or make it his own.

Quite commonly, architects of one generation will not simply denigrate but even destroy the work of immediate predecessors. The Classicists hated the Victorians. The Modernists hated the Classicists. The Post-Modernists hated the Modernists, and so on. It's a wonder we have any historic architecture left at all.

Richardson, though, has long had a curious power to enchant generations of architects with whom he would otherwise seem to have little in common. Henry-Russell Hitchcock, one of the nation's foremost advocates of white, hard-edged and ornament-free Modernism in the mid-20th century, was quite sure that Richardson's textured and foliated buildings were his generation's direct ancestors. In the logician's Olympics, that's a particularly stunning triple jump, but one that underscores the pleasures of concocting reasons to praise Richardson.

The celebration of the building's 120th anniversary, by contrast, is slightly contrived, but pleasantly so. After all, Pittsburgh is preparing its 250th-anniversary celebration, so the communications staff for County Executive Dan Onorato were eager to sponsor concurrent events highlighting the courthouse and jail, according to Drew Armstrong, the Pitt professor of architectural history who is organizing the symposium. The event, which is open to the public, will draw scholars from around the country in a one-day, four-session event addressing the courthouse itself, the original design competition, Richardson's career and the influence of his work. Among other scholars, Jeffrey Cohen from Bryn Mawr College will discuss architecture in the 1880s, and Jeffrey Ochsner of the University of Washington will present buildings influenced by Richardson's designs.

The symposium will also lead to an exhibition of architectural documents and related materials, to take place in the Frick Fine Arts Building from Sept. 2 to Oct. 17. It will draw from the extensive collection of courthouse and jail drawings that the county donated to Pitt in the 1970s as well as from other Richardson archives with whom Armstrong is currently negotiating.

"Part of the reason for the symposium is to generate local interest," Armstrong explains. As for the upcoming exhibit, "My objective overall is to put together the most thorough exhibit on Henry Hobson Richardson and the courthouse and jail so that we really make it an event that is significant nationally, because the building merits that."

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